Board Holds Special Meeting, Leaves Too Many Questions Unanswered

by Diane Payne

On August 24,2021, the Board called a special session to vote on one item: a resolution requiring vaccination mandates for all District staff. President Joyce Wilkerson announced this meeting at last week’s August Acion Meeting; she did not explain why this one item was not on that agenda.  This meeting was held one day after staff returned to school buildings and just one week before children return.  The Delta variant was first reported in the U.S. back in March of this year–5 months ago.  Why does the District again seem to be a day late and a dollar short?  Vaccines and other mandates are standard in school communities to protect children and the population at large from harm, yet the District plays brinkmanship with children and staff during a pandemic.  

The Board spun its speaker wheel and came up with 50 adults and 20 students permitted to testify–on one Action Item.  

Seven of the eight Board members attended, along with both student representatives and Dr. Hite.  Board member (and pediatrician) Maria McColgan was absent.  (No word on when Mayor Kenny will begin the replacement process for resigned Board Member Angela McIver.)  Added to the agenda just before the meeting was a presentation from Acting City Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole. District Medical Officer Barbara Klock attended but did not speak. 

Hite began the meeting with an explanation of his administration’s  support for a vaccine mandate . Dr. Bettigole, representing Mayor Kenney, concurred.  Board members then questioned both Hite and Bettigole.  Hite assured the Board that he was working with leadership of District unions in this effort, but none were included in the official presentation? Why?  Hite often claims information has been shared with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) only to find out later the inaccuracy of that assertion.

Throughout the meeting, Hite explained numerous times the “layers” of protection that the District is implementing: staff and students masked, weekly staff COVID testing,  no-touch hydration stations, surface cleaning, and air purifiers while advocating for this additional layer of protection from mandated staff vaccinations.  After the meeting, PFT president Jerry Jordan told Chalkbeat of his concerns about the District’s COVID mitigation plan: “[Jordan] again urged the district to test all students regularly for COVID whether or not they show symptoms.” The District does not plan to test children unless they exhibit a symptom or are part of an afterschool activity that will fall under test and play.  No Board member echoed this concern which seems to be an obvious and significant “layer” of protection.

Watching a District presentation on implementation of a major initiative has become an exercise in listening for what has been left out.  Here are some missing pieces that were not addressed by the administration nor asked by Board members.

  • Why will all children not be tested regularly?
  • In public testimony, a Northeast High Teacher described the first day of Professional Development (PD) with staff all gathered in an auditorium.  Why are protocols not universally in place to assure staff safety by requiring all possible gatherings to be remote?
  • Why was COVID testing not begun immediately with the District COVID dashboard up and running?
  • The same Northeast teacher noted two staff members tested positive for COVID on that first day of PD. What is the protocol for quarantine and what kind of time will staff need to use?
  • Are there remote options for teachers who are under quarantine?  
  • A parent speaker noted the benefits of having students eat lunch outside for as long as weather  permits.  He told the Board, however,  that his principal said they don’t have the resources for supporting outdoor lunches. Hite gave a vague answer, saying schools need to reach out to 440 for this kind of support.  Why is this not a “layer” of protection with the administration proactively supporting outdoor lunch efforts?
  • The Northeast teacher reported that there are 38 students on his class list.  Hite was allowed to dodge a Board member’s question about this by saying 440 staff follows up with speakers on concerns like this after the meeting.  Why does the Board accept these non-answers?
  • Board Member Ceclia Thompson shared the Parent Advisory Board’s concern about too many children in a class.  Principals and teachers have been issued class lists that show the school year opening with oversized classes.  Why is this not urgently addressed before school opens? It is no longer just an educational disservice. The outcome of overcrowded classes now can result in disease and even death.
  • Why are union leaders not part of the presentation?  

The resolution passed unanimously.  The next step is for the District to negotiate terms and consequences with labor leaders.  Since trust and transparency are sorely lacking we can only hope that the District enters into these negotiations honestly and with empathy.